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16.4.MacDonald

In the parabasis of Aristophanes’ Wasps, the chorus makes the striking claim that their poet is an alexikakos kathartes, an evil-averting purifier (Wasps 1043). As heirs to a tradition of theater criticism that begins with Aristotle’s Poetics, we cannot help but take notice; here, after all, is a dramatic poet of Classical Athens claiming to be a performer of katharsis. Scholars have therefore attempted to read back into the Wasps an Aristotelian conception of the emotional and/or psychological katharsis effected by tragedy (Reckford 1977, e.g.) The result, however, has been a rather thin and nebulous conception of comic katharsis, with little grounding in the literal or metaphorical uses of the term in the 5th century. It appears that the authoritative vocabulary of katharsis was in fact undergoing considerable contestation in Classical Greece, and that this endowed it with significant semantic stretch (Lloyd 2003, Wickkiser 2008). Deployed by Hippocratic naturalists, divine healers, and eventually sophists and philosophers, the language of katharsis could signify physical, symbolic, or intellectual purification, and all three valences might be in play at any given moment. This does not, however, license us to equate katharsis with anything that brings about anything that could be construed as healing. To speak of comic katharsis as the pleasure involved in watching and interpreting a comedy ultimately brings us no closer to answering Aristophanes’ riddle: how exactly is a comedy like a rite of purification? My goal in this paper will therefore be to examine the term kathartes, not through the lens of Aristotle’s Poetics, but rather in the context of the interconnected 5th century discourses of purification that Aristophanes activates in the Wasps, and in particular in the parabasis. I will suggest that, when it occurs in the parabasis, the designation kathartes is especially inflected by its participation in two important discourses: the mythical-tragic and the medical. In the mythical-tragic discourse, the term kathartes acclaims a hero; in the medical discourse of the Hippocratic corpus, it denigrates a quack. My analysis of the parabasis will demonstrate that Aristophanes intends his audience to have both meanings in mind. On the one hand, the chorus clearly associates their poet with Herakles, the great hero acclaimed as a kathartes in both tragedy and cult. For example, Aristophanes’ mockery of the demagogue Cleon is described in language that characterizes the poet’s opponent as a rank amalgam of the monsters Herakles defeats, including Kerberos and the Hydra (Wasps 1030-35). On the other hand, the presence of markedly Hippocratic language throughout the play and in the parabasis (Miller 1945, Mitchell-Boyask 2008) ensures that the audience is also alert to the far less approbative sense of the designation kathartes. Aristophanes thus plays upon the authoritative but contested language of katharsis in order to create a multivalent image of himself: as a kathartes, the poet is both a Herakles and quack. What is more, as I will argue, it is only in light of this second sense of the term (kathartes as quack) that we are able to answer the question of how a comedy is like a rite of purification. An examination of the evidence for the activities of the so-called kathartai suggests that they engaged in a highly theatrical mode of healing, purifying their patients through the symbolic manipulation of space, objects, and words (Parker 1983). Activating this sense of katharsis alongside the heroic katharsis performed by Herakles, Aristophanes can claim that comedy effects a unique form of purification by assaulting the monsters of the polis with all the theatrical chicanery of a medical charlatan.

Bibliography

  • Lloyd, G.E.R. In the Grip of Disease: Studies in the Greek Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Miller, H. W. “Aristophanes and Medical Language.” TAPA V. 76 (1945). pp. 74-84.
  • Mitchell-Boyask, Robin. Plague and the Athenian Imagination: Drama, History, and the Cult of Asclepius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Parker, R. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in early Greek Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.
  • Reckford, K. J. “Catharsis and Dream-Interpretation in Aristophanes’ Wasps.” TAPA 107 (1977), 283-312.
  • Wickkiser, B. Asklepios, Medicine, and the Politics of Healing in Fifth-Century Greece: Between Craft and Cult. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

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